Study examines Ferguson protesters’ views of race, crime and policing

In 1968, a commission headed by former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner examined causes of the civil unrest that had swept through America’s cities and famously warned that the U.S. was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

The protests that followed police shootings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and others suggest too little has changed. And a newly published study, co-authored by IU criminologist Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, finds that many protesters see “separate and unequal” policing as both real and part of a larger problem.

Akwasi Owusu Bempah

Akwasi Owusu Bempah

“The protesters did not view police discrimination as an isolated phenomenon but argued it’s reflective of broader society,” he said. “They recognize that police are a state institution, and they operate in a society that’s structured along racial, class and other lines.”

The study, “Perceptions of race, crime and policing among Ferguson protesters,” was published by the Journal of Crime and Justice. Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of criminal justice at IU Bloomington, is co-author with Jennifer Cobbina and Kimberly Bender of Michigan State University.

The study is based on in-depth interviews with 81 people who participated in protests after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. Most of the respondents were Ferguson residents, and all lived in the greater St. Louis area. Findings included:

  • A majority did not believe there was a correlation between race and crime; that is, they thought blacks were neither more nor less likely to commit crimes than whites.
  • A majority said police, as a group, view blacks as more likely than whites to commit crimes and therefore target blacks more aggressively for enforcement.

Owusu-Bempah said substantial research has shown that white people and Americans in general over-estimate the extent to which African-Americans are responsible for crime. But there have been few studies, he said, of how minorities see the connections between race and crime.

Also, little research has been done on how marginalized populations believe they are viewed by police. The Ferguson protesters said police viewed African-Americans as “worthless” and “animalistic,” reflecting previous studies that have found implicit racial bias among police officers.

The protesters had “a rather nuanced view” of the relationship between race and crime, Owusu-Bempah said. Some attributed black crime to social conditions and poverty. Some suggested black people were more likely to commit “street crime” motivated by financial need and white people were more likely to engage in white-collar crime motivated by opportunity.

The findings matter, Owusu-Bempah said, because perceptions matter. Studies have shown that attitudes toward and experience with police have an effect on social behavior.

“If you believe police are biased, you are less likely to cooperate with police,” he said. “And importantly, if you think police are biased, you are more likely to engage in crime. Distrust of police also increases the likelihood that social unrest will occur.”

Owusu-Bempah is also available for comment on the 2016 election season. You can learn about his expertise and more at Decision 2016, a comprehensive online media guide for elections resources at IU.

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